Monday, 6 July 2015

Bornholmer Straße (4 Stars)

The 2014 German comedy film "Bornholmer Straße" tells the story of two events that happened at the Berlin border crossing with the same name on November 9th, 1989. One of the events is true, the other is fictional. Can you tell which is which?

1. A stray dog of mixed breed crossed the border from West into East Berlin. This confused the East German border guards, because their operations manuals did not contain instructions on how to deal with animals illegally crossing the border.

2. At a press conference broadcast live on television the government information minister, Günter Schabowski, falsely stated that East German citizens could travel unconditionally into West Germany, starting immediately. This claim was based on a document he had been given shortly before the press conference and hadn't had time to read properly. As a result about 20,000 East Berlin citizens arrived at Bornholmer Straße demanding to be let through without visas, and the border guards were unable to hold them back.

If your guess is that the story with the dog is fictional you're right. There was no dog on that fateful night. But is the other event any less credible, that a country which had held its citizens as prisoners behind a Wall for 28 years should suddenly open its borders as the result of a mistake?

The original document stated that all East German citizens would be given visas for visits to West Germany without having to fulfil the strict conditions that had been in force since 1961. They would still have to apply for visas at the usual offices, but the visas would be granted immediately, instead of the usual waiting time of months or even years. In other words, as far as the border guards were concerned nothing would change. Citizens would arrive at the crossing and be allowed through if they presented a valid visa. But when the press conference was broadcast on November 9th, 1989 it was already 7pm and the offices were closed. Assuming they didn't need visas, the first people arrived at Bornholmer Straße shortly after 7, and when they were refused to be allowed to cross the crowds grew bigger and bigger.

The border crossing only had a skeleton staff of six officers, not enough to deal with thousands of people. Then came the problem with the dog. Most of the officers were dealing with the dog. They were arguing about the correct procedure. Should the dog be imprisoned, returned to West Berlin or shot? They contacted the Stasi (East Germany's secret police) to begin a search to find the dog's owner and invite him to the border for questioning. Another 12 off duty officers were called in as backup, but not all could be assigned to crowd control. Some had to assist with the dog.

Totally overwhelmed by the situation, the officer in charge, Harald Schäfer, rang his superior and asked what to do. To be precise, he asked for an order, a Befehl (the German word sounds more aggressive than the English translation). His superior was already off duty and drunk and didn't want to be disturbed. He told Harald to use his common sense. This was impossible. Good German officers don't have common sense, they follow orders. When the other officers asked him what the order was, and he passed on to them that there was no Befehl, they were in a state of panic. They sat in their office arguing about what to do while the crowds outside grew bigger and bigger. And the dog, which had been locked in the interrogation room, needed to be taken for a walk.

Harald eventually thought up a solution. He let people through one by one, but he stamped their passports as invalid so that they couldn't return to East Germany. When the first people returned to the border crossing after an hour and weren't allowed to go back home the crowd became rowdy and there was a danger of violence. What he did next is usually praised as an act of heroism, but it's more likely that it was an act of desperation, the only way he could save the lives of himself and his colleagues. He opened the barrier and let thousands of people rush into West Berlin without checking their passports.
Note for historians: the actually name of the officer in charge at Bornholmer Straße was Harald Jäger, who became known as "The Man Who Opened The Berlin Wall". An officer at the Waltersdorf border crossing, Heinz Schäfer, later claimed to have opened the barrier at his crossing an hour earlier. This can't be verified, but to prevent arguments the character in the film is a composite of the two.

One thing is very apparent to me in the way the border guards are presented in the film. People like to draw a clear line between right wing and left wing extremism, between Fascism and Communism. "Fascists do this", "Communists do that". These types of generalisations are mostly used by Communist states and their supporters. The dividing line isn't so clear. Political purists divide left and right by monetary policies, but there are also matters of racism and foreign policy. Despite its claims that it was a left-wing Socialist state, East Germany inherited a lot from Nazi Germany. It was a single party state with a secret police that oppressed its citizens. It trained its officers and bureaucrats on all levels that they should follow orders rather than think for themselves. Those are typical characteristics of a Fascist government.

The film is a comedy, yes, but it's a comedy based on a true story. Don't worry that the dog never really existed. The story of the dog is a perfect demonstration of the ridiculous mentality of East German officers.

Almost everyone in East Germany wanted reunification, but in the years that followed they discovered that it wasn't the paradise they expected. One of the advantages of living in East Germany was that there was no unemployment. As long as you were a faithful citizen who never criticised the ruling party you would have a job and cheap accommodation for life. Harald Jäger (to use his real name) experienced this himself. There was no special treatment for heroes. After reunification he was unemployed for seven years. There were no job openings for ex-border guards who had been trained not to think for themselves. After that he ran a newspaper shop and did manual labour in factories. When he retired he had to leave Berlin, because he was unable to afford the rent. Progress can be cruel.

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